Misaligned Expectations Can Lead to Grave Disappointment

By Kim Farris-Luke

I recently had a conversation with a colleague who shared her experience as a fourth-generation funeral director, working alongside her parents at their family firm in the Northeast. Shannon (we’ll call her) had joined the family company after graduating college with a business management degree and working in human relations for a few years for a large corporation.

An only child, Shannon appreciated the legacy of service her family had built in the community and felt a responsibility to continue in her parents’ footsteps. She came to the family business with a vision to grow and innovate, but quickly learned that she would face challenges from many sides. The manager of the firm had been with the company for 25 years, and he was given autonomy to make decisions without much input from the owners and believed he would be successor when the time came. Her co-workers expected her to carry her weight in the workplace, and relished passing her the tougher assignments, such as difficult body preparations and feuding families.

Her parents expected her to meet with families and direct services while also serving as the face of the family business in the community. Attending Chamber of Commerce events, volunteering for civic projects and joining various non-profit boards (all without compensation) are just what family does. But those activities drew Shannon away from the funeral home more and more, placing her parents’ expectations at odds with those of her colleagues with whom she was eager to build relationships, but who began to harbor resentment and muttered bitter comments under their breath.

After several years filled with long hours and few days off, it was clear that Shannon had indeed become the face of the company. The firm’s market share was growing, first-time families asked for her by name, and her parents began to work less. Shannon decided to approach them about the prospects of purchasing the stock of the business.

Her father was ambivalent about the transfer of ownership, and her mother refused to discuss the subject at all. Instead of being promoted to a position of senior management, her father seemed more concerned with harmony in the workplace and family peacekeeping, while her mother made it clear that she would never relinquish the reins of ownership on this side of the grave.

This led to a breaking point for Shannon. She was in her late 30s, had no spouse or children despite always having hoped for a family, and felt like she was treading water rather than influencing change.

So, she left.

Almost immediately, she was offered a leadership position with a large, multi-location funeral service provider in the Midwest. Today, she finds life much less stressful and sees great potential to grow with the company. Her relationship with her parents, meanwhile, is strained. They feel betrayed. The future of their family firm is uncertain.

Shannon realizes that she and her parents never actually discussed one another’s plans and hopes for the future of the business, and her role within it. She (and I) couldn’t help but wonder: had her family better communicated their expectations, being willing to explore possibilities and face those tough conversations, perhaps things would have turned out much differently.

Her experience is hardly unique. As family members working together, it is difficult to know which hat to wear – that of parent, child, sibling, business manager, or advisor? Family dynamics can often overshadow what our business sense may tell us is the right path to take, and one’s sense of identity tightly wrapped up in a family firm can make it difficult to think beyond it.

My advice? Muster the courage to have those tough conversations, early on and often. It can be much harder with the people we love and who are integral to our livelihoods. But ripping the proverbial bandage off sooner, with compassion and patience, creates more opportunity for a healthier family and a healthier business.

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